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5 ways to design more inclusive learning experiences for students

Using Universal Design for Learning when developing courses helps ensure inclusive learning for students in college as well as K-12.

6 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

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Giving all students the chance to be successful requires teachers, curriculum directors and instructional designers to create learning experiences that are inclusive of everyone.

headshot of George Hanshaw for article on using UDL in course design

In the early years of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the common approach was to provide special accommodations for students who needed them. Today, we recognize that this approach singles out individual students as different. When students feel “less than” because of an accommodation, they tend to perform less than their full capabilities.

Instead of providing special accommodations for students, a better approach is to design more inclusive learning experiences in which all students feel empowered to succeed. I think of this as designing courses and learning environments through a lens of opportunity rather than deficits. This improves the learning experience for everyone, not just those who have a disability.

At Los Angeles Pacific University, a fully online institution, we have taken this approach to heart, and the lessons we’ve learned can help teachers and administrators at all levels of education design more inclusive learning experiences for their students. Here are five ways to do this effectively.

Assemble a diverse team

Designing inclusive courses and learning environments works best as a collaborative effort. We have six people on our instructional design team, and everyone brings a different set of experiences and perspectives — enriching the design process tremendously.

Having multiple pairs of eyes looking at course content and structures makes it more likely that these elements will be fully inclusive. If some of us overlook a potential design flaw, the chances are high that others will catch the problem.

Create a culture of inclusion

We have embraced accessibility and inclusion as core values at our institution, and we’re constantly looking for ways to deliver on those values. Rather than just an afterthought, inclusion is part of the fabric of who we are. All of our courses are developed with this mindset at their core, which influences how we choose appropriate learning technologies and structure course content.

We’re always looking to learn and improve. When we first started on this path, our instructional design team visited the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University to learn more about designing inclusive learning experiences for students. The knowledge we learned on that trip helped shape and inform our approach.

Incorporate UDL into the design process

A key way we make learning more inclusive for students is by incorporating the Universal Design for Learning guidelines into our courses and learning environments. UDL is an accessibility framework from CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, that helps educators develop flexible and inclusive learning environments that can accommodate individual differences and learning preferences.

The UDL guidelines call for giving students multiple ways to learn content, engage with course materials and demonstrate their understanding. This allows everyone to leverage their unique strengths and skills when completing a course.

In our master of science in Instructional Design and Technology program, for example, we give learners a voice in what they create to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities within a particular competency. At the beginning of a course, the faculty member has a meeting with the learner to define the parameters of the course and the requirements they have to meet. Think of this as being similar to creating a project scope.

Within this conversation, the learner discusses their experiences with the faculty coach and what projects they can complete to demonstrate their mastery of the content. This means the learner has a direct voice in the course, an example of what we call radical inclusion.

Look for opportunities to benefit everyone

For every task and learning activity, we asked ourselves: Is this accessible to every student? If not, can we build in modifications so that all students can participate equally?

Our goal is to build courses in a way that accommodations are not required for anything we do. We want accessibility built into the student experience, so we started by using a learning management system that is designed with accessibility in mind. Our LMS includes a tool for generating transcripts of online videos automatically. To maximize what it has to offer, all of our course pages are built using HTML templates created by the LMS team that ensures things such as efficient keyboard navigability.

We use a separate text-to-speech tool called ReadSpeaker embedded within our LMS so that as students access course materials and other online resources, there is a prompt within the margin of the LMS that says: “Listen to this page.” When students click on the listen button, they can hear the text read aloud, regardless of its source. Uniformity is key here. The button is recognizable and consistent as long as they are within the LMS.

When accessibility is intentionally addressed like this as part of the course design process, then instructional leaders can be sure that it’s integrated in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner. It also breaks down barriers simply by being consistently applied across learning materials.

Evaluate your progress

To assess how well we’re meeting everyone’s learning needs, we use many methods. For instance, we listen to students’ course feedback. We use the built-in accessibility check feature within our LMS to ensure that our courses meet minimum accessibility standards. We view every learning experience we create with a critical eye, and we’re not afraid to own our mistakes.

In a music course we created, one of the assignments was to watch clips from the musical “The Lion King.” At first, we designed the course page to say, “Watch these videos from ‘The Lion King,’ ” and underneath was an option for sight-challenged students. In examining this design more critically, we realized a more inclusive approach would be to say, “Experience these musical numbers from ‘The Lion King,’ ” and then present multiple sets of media side by side that students could choose from. When we removed the labels, it became a more inclusive experience for everyone.

Inclusion is a way to create psychological safety for students, and our own research shows that students’ likelihood of success nearly triples when this sense of safety and inclusion exists. When students feel accepted and accommodated as part of the basic design of a course, without being given special treatment that makes them feel different, they tend to thrive.

George Hanshaw is the director of eLearning operations for Los Angeles Pacific University, which uses ReadSpeaker with its LMS. LAPU is an online institution serving about 3,200 nontraditional learners, where accessibility is integral to the school’s mission. 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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